Artists as Agents of Social Change Past and Present


When it comes to art and social change, there are really no limits. Art can be used as a form of protest, to raise awareness about important issues, and even to call for change and social justice. For centuries now, artists have been using their creativity to shed light on the world’s problems and fight for justice. And today, more than ever before, we need art that speaks truth to power. Political art has the ability to reach people on a different level; it can bypass rational thought and appeal directly to emotions.

It is not a coincidence that the most influential artists in history were, more often than not, also political figures themselves. Pablo Picasso painted Guernica; the most reproduced photograph in history, The Falling Soldier, was by Robert Capa; and the world’s most famous work of literature, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, was written by a playwright who was also an activist. What they all have in common is that their work continues to inspire millions of people around the world today.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

We’re living in a time of global crisis, where politics affect all our lives in some way or another. Positive change is possible, but politicians aren’t going to fix things on their own. We need to do our part by educating ourselves on the issues and taking action in our communities. And when inspiration strikes, we need to pick up a pen, a paintbrush or grab a camera.

What is Social Change?

Broadly defined, social change is any significant alteration over time in behaviour patterns and cultural values and norms. By “significant” alteration, sociologists mean changes yielding profound social consequences. Examples of such changes have included the industrial revolution, the abolition of slavery, the feminist movement, LGBTQIA2S rights, and racial equality.

Social change is most often slow. One reason is that people are resistant to change. They may be comfortable with the way things are and don’t want to change. another reason is that change can be difficult. It can be difficult to change long-standing beliefs and practices. It can also be difficult to change institutions. Institutions are slow to change because they have a lot of inertia. They are designed to be stable and slow to change. Finally, social change is slow because it takes time for people to change their behaviour.

Social change is important because it is the engine that drives history. It is the force that has created and destroyed civilizations, that has led to the rise and fall of empires, and that has shaped the course of human social evolution. Social change is a powerful and often dangerous force, but it is also essential to the progress of humanity.

How Can Art Help Create Social Change?

Art can help create social change in a few ways. First, activist artists can create art that can be used to raise awareness about social issues. This can be done by creating art that directly addresses the issue, or by creating art that makes people think about the issue in a new way. Second, art can be used to create a sense of community and solidarity among people who are working for social change. This can be done by creating art that celebrates the work that people are doing, or by creating art that brings people together to share their experiences. Finally, art can be used to inspire people to take action. This can be done by creating art that shows the potential for change, or by creating art that calls people to action.

In recent years, we have seen art playing a role in movements for social justice, from the Women’s March to Black Lives Matter. Artists have used their work to shine a light on important issues, spark conversation, and rally people to action. In a time when the world can feel divided, art can be a unifying force, bringing people together to fight for a better future.

Examples of Artists Who Have Helped Create Social Change

As mentioned in the introductory paragraphs of this article, there are many examples of artists who have addressed social change, social awareness, political statements, and many other important issues. Let’s take a look at some influential artists in different fields, and put a stronger focus on some visual artists of note.

Art for Racial Justice

Music for Social Change

Many musicians have used their songs to raise awareness about the issue of police brutality. In 2016, Beyoncé released the song “Formation” in response to the police killings of unarmed black men. The song quickly became an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Other artists have used their work to raise awareness about the issue of gun violence. In 2017, rapper Logic released the song “1-800-273-8255” which was inspired by the true story of a young man who was considering suicide. The song’s title is the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The song helped to destigmatize mental health issues and started an important conversation about suicide prevention.

There are many other examples of music artists who have used their work to create social change. These are just a few of the most important and influential examples.

Visual Artists for Social Change

Visual Artists have long been actively creating art for social change. For us here at Arts, Artists, Artwork, this list could go on and on and on, there have been so many. For the sake of keeping this a manageable article to read, we’ll focus on some popular big names and try to surprise you with one or two that you weren’t aware of or hadn’t heard about.


Banksy is an anonymous England-based street artist, political activist, and film director. His satirical street art and subversive epigrams combine dark humour with graffiti executed in a distinctive stenciling technique. His works of political and social commentary have been featured on streets, walls, and bridges of cities throughout the world.

Banksy Social Activism Mural, photograph by Dan Meyers

Banksy’s art is often satirical and has been used to raise awareness of political and social issues, such as poverty, war, and racism. He has created art on various topics including those critical of the Israeli government and its treatment of Palestinians. Banksy has also created artworks parody the commercials of fast food chains such as McDonald’s and KFC. In 2010, he painted a mural on the side of a building in the Gaza Strip. The mural showed a girl holding a balloon in one hand and a gun in the other. The mural was seen as a criticism of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians.

In recent years, he has turned his attention to the conflict in Ukraine, using his art to raise awareness of the human rights abuses taking place there. Banksy first visited Ukraine in 2014, shortly after the outbreak of the conflict. He painted a number of murals in the capital, Kiev, and in the eastern city of Donetsk. These murals depicted scenes of violence and suffering, and were intended to shock and disturb viewers. In 2015, Banksy returned to Ukraine, this time to the city of Lviv. There he painted a series of murals on the walls of a children’s hospital. These murals showed scenes of hope and resilience, and were intended to give hope to the children who were patients in the hospital. In 2016, Banksy once again visited Ukraine, this time to the city of Mariupol. There he painted a mural on the side of a building which showed a group of angels protecting a group of children.

Late 2022, Banksy has seven new murals documented in Ukraine following Russia’s “Special Military Operation” that has devastated Ukraine and sent millions of people to other countries as refugees.

Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso was a Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, and ceramicist who is considered one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. His artworks are characterized by their use of Cubism, a style Picasso helped develop, which broke down traditional boundaries between art forms. He also frequently incorporated elements from other cultures, particularly African art, into his work.

Picasso’s art was often used to make social and political statements. His paintings “Guernica” and “The Dove” are two examples of his work that denounced the horrors of war. “Guernica” in particular is a masterwork of Cubism that is widely recognized as one of the most powerful anti-war paintings ever created. It was Picasso’s response to the Nazi bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. The painting is a harrowing depiction of the suffering of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of war.

“The Dove” was another of Picasso’s paintings that advocated for peace. It was created as a poster for the World Peace Congress in Paris in 1949.

Dove of Peace by Pablo Picasso

Ai Weiwei

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is another example of art activism. Over the past few decades, AI Weiwei has emerged as one of the most important and influential artists in the world. His work often explores social issues and strives to create meaningful change.

One of Weiwei’s most famous works is his 2010 installation “Sunflower Seeds”. The piece consists of millions of handmade porcelain seeds, each one unique. The work is a comment on the mass production that takes place in China, and the way that people are often treated like commodities.

Weiwei has also been an outspoken critic of the Chinese government, and has frequently been subjected to harassment and detention by authorities. In 2012, he was arrested and held for 81 days without charges. This experience led Weiwei to create the installation “S.A.C.R.E.D.”, which consists of six iron boxes that each contain a recreation of one of the cells he was held in.

Weiwei’s art is often personal and political, and it has helped to create social change both in China and around the world.

Keith Haring

Keith Haring was an artist who is best known for his work as a social activist. He used his art to raise awareness about a variety of issues, including AIDS and homophobia. Haring’s work helped to break down barriers and create social change. His art was often playful and optimistic, which helped to connect with people of all ages and backgrounds. Haring’s work continues to inspire people to stand up for what they believe in and to fight for social justice.

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Basquiat’s art is often seen as a symbol of social change, as it often addresses issues of race, class, and politics. In particular, Basquiat’s work often focuses on the experiences of black Americans, and he often uses images and symbols that are associated with black culture. For example, in his painting “Untitled (Skull),” Basquiat includes a skull that is often seen as a symbol of death and violence. However, Basquiat also includes the words “defacement” and “confrontation” above the skull, which suggests that his work is also about the ways in which black Americans are often treated unfairly. In this way, Basquiat’s work helps to raise awareness about racial justice and social issues in order to create a dialogue about how to change the world.

John Heartfield

John Heartfield was a German visual artist. His art was deeply political, and he used his photo-montages to make powerful statements about the rise of Nazism and Fascism in Europe. His work was often critical of the government and the military, and he was not afraid to use his art to influence public opinion. He’s considered a pioneer for using art as a political weapon. Heartfield’s art helped to create social change by raising awareness of the dangers of totalitarianism and by encouraging people to resist tyranny.

Thyssen controlling the puppet Hitler, 1930 by John Heartfield
Thyssen controlling the puppet Hitler, 1930 by John Heartfield

Aaron Douglas

As an African American artist and Member of the Harlem Renaissance, Aaron Douglas was keenly aware of the racism and discrimination that his people faced on a daily basis. He used his art as a platform to speak out against these injustices and to promote social change.

Douglas’ art was highly stylized and often featured strong, bold images of African Americans. He drew his inspiration from traditional African art, as well as from the Harlem Renaissance. His work was vibrant and expressive, and it captured the spirit and strength of the African American people.

Douglas’ art was not only aesthetically beautiful, but it also conveyed a powerful message of hope and resilience. Through his artwork, he inspired his people to fight for equality and justice. He helped to pave the way for the civil rights movement, and his legacy continues to inspire social change today.

Shamsia Hassani

Shamsia Hassani is an Afghan artist who uses her art to fight for social change. She was born in Kabul, Afghanistan and grew up during the Taliban regime. Her father was a professor of calligraphy at the Kabul University, and she was exposed to art from a young age.

Hassani began her career as a graffiti artist, using the city of Kabul as her canvas. She quickly gained notoriety for her bold and beautiful murals, which often depicted scenes of hope and resilience in the face of oppression. Hassani’s art has been featured in international exhibitions, and she has won numerous awards for her work.

In addition to her artwork, Hassani is also an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and freedom of expression in Afghanistan. She has used her platform to speak out against the oppression of women, and to call for an end to the violence against them. Hassani is a powerful voice for change in her country, and her art is a powerful tool for raising awareness and promoting social justice.

Film and Television for Social Change

Since the dawn of film and television, these mediums have had the ability to entertain, educate and inform viewers on a variety of topics. In recent years, they have also been used as a tool to create social change.

There are a number of films and television shows that have been instrumental in bringing about social change. One of the most notable is the film Selma, which tells the story of the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. The film was praised for its accurate portrayal of the events and for its ability to shine a light on the importance of voting rights.

Another film that has helped create social change is The Help. The film tells the story of African American maids working in white households in the 1960s. The film highlights the inequality and racism that was rampant during this time period.

Television shows such as Orange is the New Black and Transparent have also been important in bringing about social change. Both shows feature protagonists that are members of marginalized groups. Orange is the New Black tells the story of a group of women who are incarcerated in a women’s prison. The show highlights the injustices that are faced by women in the prison system.

Shows like All in the Family and The Jeffersons pushed boundaries and tackled difficult topics like racism, sexism, and homophobia. These shows helped to break down barriers and create a more tolerant society.

Television was also a powerful force for change in the way we talked about and understood mental illness. Shows like M*A*S*H and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest depicted mental illness in a more realistic and sympathetic light. This helped to destigmatize mental illness and start a conversation about how to better support those who suffer from it.

Overall, film and television are a powerful tool for social change. It helps to break down barriers and start important conversations about difficult topics, such as racial justice, and other important cultural justice issues.

Literature for Social Change

One of the most important aspects of social change is the ability to share stories and experiences that can help create empathy and understanding. Literature has always been a powerful tool for doing this, and there are many examples of times when it has helped to create social change.

One of the most famous examples is Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. This novel was published in 1852 and is credited with helping to fuel the anti-slavery movement in the United States. The novel told the story of the brutal realities of slavery and the plight of those who were forced to live under it. It helped to show the humanity of those who were affected by slavery and create a sense of empathy and understanding.

More recently, novels like The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns have helped to raise awareness of the issues faced by people in Afghanistan. These novels tell the stories of ordinary people who are affected by war, violence, and displacement. They help to create a sense of understanding and empathy for those who are going through these experiences.

Did you know Shakespeare’s art has helped create social change in a number of ways? First, his plays and poems often deal with social issues and can be used to raise awareness about important topics. Second, his works have been adapted to film and television, which can reach a wider audience and help to spread his messages. Finally, Shakespeare’s art is often used in political and social campaigns, which can help to rally support for a cause or raise awareness about an issue.

Literature has always been a powerful tool for social change.

What Kind of Art is Most Effective in Creating Social Change?

There is no single answer to this question as different types of art can be effective in different ways and for different purposes. However, some general principles can be identified.

Firstly, art that is created with the intention of promoting social change is more likely to be effective than art that is not created with this intention. Secondly, art that is accessible to a wide audience is more likely to have an impact than art that is only accessible to a small number of people.

Thirdly, art that is thought-provoking and challenging is more likely to create change than art that simply reaffirms existing beliefs. Finally, art that is created collaboratively is more likely to be effective than art that is created by a single individual.

When you think about all the examples that have been written about in this article, they all have a place in the conversation. The most influential are likely music, and film and television in our modern era, while literature has had a bigger role in the past. Visual arts has often stirred up the conversations and inspired both literature, and film and television.

How Can You Be An Artist For Social Change?

Art can be a powerful tool for social change. Artists can use their work to raise awareness about important issues and spark conversation and action. They can also use their work to document and preserve history, culture, and stories.

There are many ways to be an artist for social change. Some artists use their work to directly address social and political issues. Others use their work to create more general feelings of hope, inspiration, and connection. No matter what approach you take, your work can make a difference.

Here are a few tips for being an artist for social change:

Find your voice. What are you passionate about? What issues do you care about? Use your art to speak out about the things that matter to you.

Be fearless. Don’t be afraid to experiment and take risks. Push yourself outside of your comfort zone.

Be original. There is no one else like you, so use your unique perspective to create something new.

Be persistent. Social change takes time. Don’t give up, even when progress is slow.

Be collaborative. Work with others to amplify your message and reach more people.


Artists play an important role in society as agents for social change. Through their creativity and passion, artists can inspire others to take action and create positive change in the world. By using their art to raise awareness of important issues, artists can help to make a difference in the lives of others and build a better future for all.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider buying me a coffee. Your support is greatly appreciated.





4 responses to “Artists as Agents of Social Change Past and Present”

  1. Fine Chidodo Avatar
    Fine Chidodo

    Thank you learnt a lot on art as a vehicle for social change

  2. Catie Avatar

    I wrote my doctoral dissertation (2010) on Museums as activist agents for social change . I enjoyed reading this article.

  3. Ana Velosa Avatar
    Ana Velosa

    Very interesting review. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.